Written by Ilya Shapiro, a senior fellow in constitutional studies at the Cato Institute. Posted with permission from Cato @ Liberty.
In 1798, Thomas Jefferson wrote to a friend that the one thing missing from the newly minted Constitution was some kind of limit on federal debt:
I wish it were possible to obtain a single amendment to our Constitution. I would be willing to depend on that alone for the reduction of the administration of our government to the genuine principles of its Constitution; I mean an additional article, taking from the federal government the power of borrowing.
Now that Washington has kicked the can on our out-of-control spending yet again, isn’t it time to reconsider Jefferson’s wish?
It may be easier than previously thought, through an ingenious spin on the balanced budget amendment (BBA). Compact for America, a Texas-based nonprofit advised by the Goldwater Institute’s Nick Dranias, is advancing an agreement among the states — called an “interstate compact” — to transform the constitutional amendment process into a “turn-key” operation. That is, a single interstate compact can consolidate all the state action involved in the Article V process: the application to Congress for an amendment convention, delegate appointments and instructions, selection of the convention location and rules, and ultimate ratification. It then consolidates all the corresponding congressional action, both the call for the convention and ratification referral, into a single omnibus concurrent resolution.
The general welfare clause is one of the most horribly understood and most misused pieces of the United States Constitution, second only to the Interstate Commerce Clause. With it, Congress has exercises many wealth redistribution schemes with the argument that it’s constitutional. However, when you look at the Founding Father’s intent, nothing could be further from the truth.
To start with, let’s look at this quote from Thomas Jefferson:
“Congress has not unlimited powers to provide for the general welfare, but only those specifically enumerated.”
James Madison agrees:
“With respect to the words general welfare, I have always regarded them as qualified by the detail of powers connected with them. To take them in a literal and unlimited sense would be a metamorphosis of the Constitution into a character which there is a host of proofs was not contemplated by its creators.”
It all looks pretty straight forward to me.
The phrase “general welfare” didn’t create a broad power that could be thrown around whenever someone wanted to justify taking from the rich and giving to the poor. No, it was guidance on how best to use the powers given to the Congress. They weren’t to work towards the benefits of a particular group, but for the benefit of Americans as a whole.
In 1776, Thomas Jefferson penned the Declaration of Independence, in which he engraved into our national consciousness the concept that “all men are created equal…endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable rights…among these are life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness”. Those words provided an earth-shattering salvo which would blast a gaping hole in the world’s understanding of the nature of government. No longer would men be servants, mere subjects bound to obedience by the Divine Right of Kings. Men would now be free; sovereign individuals free to live as they so chose, answerable only to God for the conduct of their life provided they did not infringe upon the rights of others.
After years of abuse at the hands of King George, under whom they were taxed without representation in Parliament, forced to quarter the very soldiers who would punish disobedience to the Crown, unable to pass laws of self-governance and in general being treated as slaves rather than fellow citizens with rights, the American colonists declared that they would no longer be subject to such abuse, but would form a new government in which every man was bestowed the same rights and no man was favored above another in the eyes of the law.
For nearly a decade war was waged upon the American continent. Mangled, broken and torn bodies littered the battlefields along the eastern seaboard. Families were separated; husbands and brothers lost…all because the people of this nation decided to rise up against tyranny and oppression. When the sounds of cannon and musket-fire were silenced, when the smoke cleared and the soldiers returned home, a new era had begun.
This is the end of United Liberty’s “Your Daily Jefferson” series. We started on Thomas Jefferson’s birthday and went to today, July 4th, which is also the day he died. Thanks for reading.
When in the Course of human events it becomes necessary for one people to dissolve the political bands which have connected them with another and to assume among the powers of the earth, the separate and equal station to which the Laws of Nature and of Nature’s God entitle them, a decent respect to the opinions of mankind requires that they should declare the causes which impel them to the separation.
My fellow UL contributor Louis DeBroux makes an argument about the separation of church and state that is fairly common on the right, but it’s one that constitutes both a misstatement of history and a misunderstanding of what religious liberty is all about.
First, on the historical side, Louis makes this contention:
A study of American history shows that the Founding Fathers were heavily influenced by religion. Jefferson, often accused of being an agnostic or atheist, was likely a Deist; but regardless, he was a believer in God and in Jesus Christ. After all, this is the man who penned the Declaration of Independence, who so eloquently opined the concept that all men are “endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable rights”. If that were too ambiguous, Jefferson also wrote “And can the liberties of a nation be thought secure when we have removed their only firm basis, a conviction in the minds of the people that these liberties are of the gift of God? That they are not to be violated but with His wrath? Indeed I tremble for my country when I reflect that God is just; that His justice cannot sleep forever.”
Jefferson understood that our liberties come from God, and that if they do not come from God then they are granted by government, and can be taken by government at their pleasure. That philosophy then usurps man of his unalienable rights, and government then grants rights at the whim of the majority, which is nothing more than mob rule.
Our second president, John Adams, rightly noted that “We have no government armed with power capable of contending with human passions unbridled by morality and religion. Our Constitution was made only for a moral and religious people. It is wholly inadequate to the government of any other.”
A couple of items in the news lately have brought the judiciary back into the consciousness of the American public; the announced retirement of Supreme Court Justice John Paul Stevens, and the recent decision by federal judge Barbara Crabb in Wisconsin in which she ruled that the National Day of Prayer is a violation of the Establishment Clause of the U.S. Constitution. In the rulings of both justices we find an egregious disrespect for the plain meaning of the Constitution, and it is a failure of the American people to learn the Constitution that has allowed us to stray so far.
As a nation, we have reached a point where we bestow upon the courts an unjustified level of deference to their perceived wisdom. In fact, the Founding Fathers created the judiciary to be the weakest of the three branches, vested as they are with lifetime appointments.
Thomas Jefferson wrote (in a letter to William C. Jarvis, 1820) that “To consider the judges as the ultimate arbiters of all constitutional questions [is] a very dangerous doctrine indeed, and one which would place us under the despotism of an oligarchy. Our judges are as honest as other men and not more so.” Yet today we have allowed the courts to be elevated to the level of an oligarchy, where we accept rulings that are clearly unaligned with the Constitution without so much as a whimper.
Nearly everyone in opposition to ObamaCare worked very hard to stop it before it made its way through both houses of Congress and to the President’s desk to be signed into law. Once President Obama signed the legislation into law, all of these wound up activists found themselves without an issue to focus on after a year of “debate” over healthcare reform. Some state officials took it upon themselves to file lawsuits over the newly signed law, while others sought to protect their constituents from the aspects they found to be Unconstitutional. Today, the Tenth Amendment Center provided another state-level action. From the press release:
“Now that Health Care reform has been signed into law, the question people ask most is “What do we do about it?” said Michael Boldin, founder of the Tenth Amendment Center. “The status quo response includes lobbying congress, marching on D.C. “voting the bums out,” suing in federal court, and more. But the last 100 years have proven that none of these really work, and government continues to grow year in and year out.”
“We recommend a different path, one advised by prominent founders such as Thomas Jefferson and James Madison - nullification,” said Boldin. Nullification, according to the Center, is the rightful remedy to an unconstitutional act, as it considers the recently-signed Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act to be. When a state nullifies a federal law, it is proclaiming that the law in question is void and inoperative, or non-effective, within the boundaries of that state; or, in other words, not a law as far as the state is concerned.
This past week, the US Senate failed to concur with the House of Representatives in passing a bailout package for the nation’s large domestic automakers. This bailout had the support of the Democratic leadership in Congress as well as the Bush White House. Already, doomsayers are bemoaning this lack of financial infusion from an already depleted federal budget. However, I applaud this decision as a victory for principle over pragmatism. Hoping that conservatives will learn from this effort to continue enlarging government, consider some lessons from the bailout controversy.
I can’t imagine the framers of the Constitution thought the simple wording of the 2nd Amendment would ever be brought into question.
A well regulated militia being necessary to the security of a free State, the right of the People to keep and bear arms shall not be infringed.
While Americans should at all times continuously educate themselves about the founding of this nation, its founding fathers, and its founding documents, this is especially true during times of great uncertainty and inevitable political change. I think it would be safe to guess that Thomas Jefferson is the favorite revolutionary American philosopher and politician of a majority of United Liberty readers, so I have compiled some of my favorite Jefferson quotes-
The tree of liberty must be refreshed from time to time with the blood of patriots and tyrants.
If the American people ever allow private banks to control the issue of their money, first by inflation and then by deflation, the banks and corporations that will grow up around them (around the banks), will deprive the people of their property until their children will wake up homeless on the continent their fathers conquered.